U.S. Troops in Iraq Include 10,000 Mothers

In Iraq, there will be no delivery of flowers or long lazy brunches on this Mother's Day. There are 10,000 American mothers serving in Iraq. A new congressional report says female soldiers are far more likely to be single parents or to be married to someone in the military than their male counterparts. Long, and repeated, deployments are taking their toll.

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In Iraq, there will be no delivery of flowers or long lazy brunches on this Mother's Day, and there are 10,000 mothers serving in the U.S. military there. For them, they'll be lucky to get a phone call. A new congressional report released today says women soldiers are far more likely to be single parents or to be married to someone in the military than men are. And long and repeated deployments are taking their toll on mothers in uniform.

NPR's Anne Garrels met one of them recently in western Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS: At one of the combat outposts now being established in Baghdad. A female soldier was curled up in a chair to catch a few minutes of sleep after an all-nighter. Without her helmet and bulletproof glasses, which had briefly been tossed aside, she look like a Madonna - small, beautiful, with thick black hair coiled in a bun. It turns out she is indeed a mother - a mother of three. But she also drives truck through some of the Baghdad's most dangerous areas where roadside bombs are common.

Sergeant MARIA(ph): We got the security team that - they do their job and they clear the area, but there always, you know, there might be that one object on the road that they just bypass and miss, and we might be the one that hit it.

GARRELS: On the overnight mission out here, it was tensed.

Sgt. MARIA: Everybody had their eyes open, like, did you see that over there? It looked, kind of, weird. Did you see that?

GARRELS: Sergeant Maria - I'm withholding her last name for reasons that will become clear - joined the military eight years ago when she was 21.

Sgt. MARIA: When I joined I was a single parent and I was working three jobs after I finish school, just constantly. And I wasn't spending any time with my son.

GARRELS: Maria's son was born after she was raped at age 15. She adores him, and hasn't yet told him the full story. She has struggled to find a way of life that would work best for both of them.

Sgt. MARIA: I figured, you know what, I'll join the military and I'll get to see my son, you know, have him with me and, you know, I know there's some sacrifices that I've got to make, but at least we can do it together.

GARRELS: I didn't quite work out as expected. Maria was deployed to Kosovo for three years. Her commander would not allow her to bring her son over. She subsequently married another soldier and had two more children. On this Mother's Day, both parents are deployed in Iraq despite Maria's efforts to make sure one of them stayed behind.

Sgt. MARIA: But in our case, they needed all the soldiers to base. We did ask. We got denied.

GARRELS: Luckily, her parents are able to take care of the three children. Without that support system, she doesn't know how she could've coped. Maria has barely seen her 2-year-old in over a year.

Sgt. MARIA: He knows who I am through the pictures. In person, whenever I go to see him, he runs away from me. But, you know - and it's really hard. I guess I don't look the person in the picture. I don't know.

GARRELS: She and her husband will next see their children in July, when they get their only two-week break during their 15-month tour.

Sgt. MARIA: The first time he shies away from me it's going to break my heart. But, you know, those were the fact of things of the path we chose. You know, we…

GARRELS: Maria and her husband have seen each other only once since they deployed to Iraq seven months ago.

Sgt. MARIA: One conjugal visit, and that was back in February for Valentine's Day. It was great.

GARRELS: Her commanding officer has since cancelled conjugal visits, because too many of his female soldiers were getting pregnant. Despite all this, Maria has no regrets about coming to Iraq, though she gets upset at times about how things have gone. She says she is at last seeing some progress. And she certainly has no regrets about joining the military.

Sgt. MARIA: It's the greatest thing I could've ever done, I mean, because it has been hard. But I won't change it for anything.

GARRELS: But the military is going to lose Maria. She says it's time to be with her family. But leaving won't be easy.

Sgt. MARIA: I personally would be a little jealous to wake up every morning and see my husband put on the uniform and go to work while I'm at home. I don't know how he's going to deal with it because it's going to be hard. I don't want to give it back.

GARRELS: Her 13-year-old son's words made the difference.

Sgt. MARIA: He says, you know, mom, you give us everything, everything you can possibly imagine. But we don't have you, and that's all we want. You know, and that right there, is to say, you know, what? This is it.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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